I call it The Art of the Gag.
So much of my work begins with a process similar to Jimmy Carr writing a joke. I take something and invert it, I twist it and rearrange it. I turn it upside down and see what falls out.
In ‘Heaven Is Too Far Away,’ I took the classic Peanuts (by Charles Schultz) bit where Snoopy is always after the Red Baron, and tried to do the same thing but as realistically as possible. Yet the actual conflict between Will Tucker and the Baron is completely manufactured, almost with a view to the headlines. They’re just soldiers in the end, and it’s ‘nothing personal,’ as is said in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. (No, it’s just good business.)
Historically, there has always been a debate, and a meaningless one on the face of it, as to who actually shot down the Red Baron. Australian historians claim it was Aussie machine gunners, and Canadian historians claim it was Roy Brown, although both sides always admit to the other conflicting claims, and other historians in other countries, those having no stake in the outcome, have differing points of view. What I did with that book was to find that crack in history, and wedge my character in by careful pounding with a sledge hammer, and now there are three possibilities. Although Lt. Colonel Will Tucker carefully denies shooting down the Red Baron in the same engagement, the reader is left with the distinct impression that he might have.
Another gag I managed to work in was the aerial combat with Herman Goering. In the end, Will decides to let him live when Goering’s guns jam. While it’s never openly stated in the book, Will has just won the Second World War without firing a shot, because Herman goes on to build the Luftwaffe, with its emphasis on blitzkrieg, lightning war, and therefore he did not create a strategic air force capable of defeating Britain before the western allies became involved, which a more competent man might have done.
The point is, it’s all about apportioning the glory, and official histories are chock-full of that sort of thing, even though they would never admit to it. They’re arguing about who gets the glory, ladies and gentlemen. Well, whoever shot at Goering and missed in good old WW I, should get some of the glory for winning WW II. Tucker also strafed good old Adolf Hitler, incidentally. Unfortunately, he missed. Otherwise, he would have won WW II, which might not have happened at all, and he would have done it single-handedly, although he had a rear gunner along for the ride.
That’s the art of the gag.
In ‘The Second Coming,’ I extrapolated about what could happen when I saw the world’s first pregnant man interviewed on CNN. Only I had to have a gag, so I made sure he was date-raped, had no memory of the event, and was a divorced heterosexual man just to rub the point in a bit. The art of the gag, right? I even hazarded a guess as to who might want to do something like that and why. Yet a pseudo-memoir such as ‘Heaven’ might have worked here too. The art of the gag requires some daring, because it’s a different approach and people wonder why in the hell a writer would ever want to take such a risk.
Honestly, if I wanted to write about Canadians and aerial combat and WW I, there are proper ways to go about it, using straighforward historical sources, a conventional approach, and a suitably reverent point of view...
In the story ‘Wendigo’ I experimented with native mythology, only instead of a real Wendigo, a kind of native zombie, we’re dealing with something different, and yet still relevant to native history and experience. The story actually deals with alcoholism, which must have seemed magical, mysterious and totally evil when it first manifested itself in the native village. No one had ever seen it before, and they had only cultural equivalents to describe what they were seeing. They hadn’t invented the proper words yet.
The art of the gag doesn’t necessarily have to be comedic. It’s a way of getting at the truth, using the unexpected along with a little suspense and mystification to keep the reader following along, hopefully finishing the story.
As John Candy told Steve Martin in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, “…a story should have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener.”
The gag is surprisingly important to me. On some theoretical level, I can (or at least should be able to) write anything I want. Right now, I haven’t written anything in over a week. That’s troubling because a writer who isn’t writing is basically just a useless person. Not to put too fine a point on it, that’s why I took up writing in the first place—it’s the only thing I’m good for these days. The art of the gag is that the camera sees everything, and I just write it down. The camera sees the man step over the banana peel—and then fall down an open manhole cover. The trouble is that I’m not seeing anything lately.
Part of the problem is that without television, bad as it can be, I’m not seeing the contradictions. I don’t get out much, there’s that total lack of stimulus.
There’s no stimulation of my ‘aw, fuck off’ bone, where I see the ridiculousness of human perceptions, attitudes, and unconscious prejudices, (especially prejudices) and other things that are the common cannon fodder for the art of the gag. Without TV I’m not seeing that bad history, or bad science, mucky thinking, misleading reporting, half-truths, mob opinions, or just plain bad shows and bad movies, which people love in spite of it all. Without a TV there’s not much for me to parody, and I don’t get the paper these days either.
The internet is so much more proactive—I have to think of something first and then Google it. It’s not like it comes to me on a random basis, which in some surreal fashion, inspires me to have a bash at it. That randomness, that spontaneity of influence, is important to the art of the gag. And as I come to the end of this post, it suddenly struck me that if the British Empire had not collapsed after the west won WW II, the world might have turned out a lot differently.
They might have gone on to establish some kind of world hegemony.
Fuck, I wonder what that would have been like--I suspect a bit too much like StarFleet for my comfort. Yes, a world where all good thing stem from some sort of benevolent hierarchical entity, where racial science is discredited, yet notions of nobility, aristocracy and kinship are carefully preserved.
So we're back to writing about Canada again.